I had the chance to catch up with Liza at home in one of her edible gardens. Liza is the brains and braun behind Sacramento Basket and spends a huge chunk of her time teaching for the California Food Literacy Center, which is where I met her. She takes her knowledge and passion for eating well and knowing where your food comes from and shares it with eager kids right here in Sacramento. I showed up at her house and was immediately handed a glass of red wine and given a full garden tour. The shoot should have only taken about an hour or so but I think I was there for about three hours, the good conversation just wouldn't stop! I could hang out in Liza and Matthew's garden all day long...
When did you start a garden and what was the driving force behind you creating a garden for yourself and your family?
You know... I've always enjoyed the company of plants. For years, that company was limited to a handful of culinary herbs and an ever expanding library of succulents (the non-gardenerʼs repertoire). So, how did I go from there to having two fabulous seasonal gardens and feeding our family from them? I guess my garden begins with a love story. When I first met my partner Matthew, he arrived at a party I was having with a selection of herbs, and greens and tomatoes he had grown. Over the days following, I sent him pictures and a recipe of every dish I made with them. This has been our dynamic ever since! Only now, Iʼm more involved in the garden, and I pull him into the kitchen too. When we moved in together, we knew it was only a matter of time before there were chickens.
How did you learn about gardening? Your family? Friends? Pinterest? haha
Funny, I donʼt think I've ever thought about this. We began with a desire to grow our own food... and we are both pretty intuitive people. Early on we bought soil... and now we are composting so much... we are making it. Thereʼs been a few inspirational books, “Living the Good Life” -by the Nearings... and who knows... word of mouth... something on the internet. When a neighbor gifted us an empty lot a block from our house, we decided to make it a “test garden”. So we put together two “Hugelkulturs” over there. We read about them and decided to just go for it. They are mounds with a substrate of rotting wood and then compost and topsoil. Works like a charm. Then a friend threw a box of bees over there as well. Itʼs difficult to deconstruct the whole process... you just meet like-minded people and the next thing you know, youʼre the proprietor of this amazing little ecosystem that puts food on your table.
How has gardening changed the way you cook and shop for food?
Whooosh. Gardening has definitely changed the way I cook and shop for food. With very little exception, we use what we grow. Iʼm sitting outside right now and looking at a bed full of various lettuces... Oak Leaf, Butter Crunch, Romaine, arugula, mache and kales. Iʼm not going to go buy spinach at the market because I want it and I am not growing it. We donʼt buy tomatoes. We grow them. However, tomatoes have a season. I enjoy them when they are here... and I enjoy missing them when they are gone. And I enjoy the anticipation of their return. We can them for use through winter and spring. Thereʼs a beauty to living with the seasons and a comforting rhythm that becomes the way you live through the year. Our seasons are defined by the logic of nature.
What were some of your early pitfalls in gardening?
There are always pitfalls. Thereʼs that damn thing called weather. It is the variable of all variables. And, itʼs been that way throughout the history of man farming. And... then there are bugs. Admittedly, we havenʼt mastered the cycle of our apple tree, and we have worms. We donʼt use pesticides... so we just have to be patient with our learning curve.
What is the first thing you successfully harvested from your garden and what did you make from it?
Well... we have had a few seasons together... but I can honestly say the first time we grew broccoli I was thrilled with the success and the flavor. I made a homemade Orecchiette with broccoli and a mince of raw garlic, anchovy, lemon juice and red pepper flakes. Itʼs an easy and simple dish... but so bright, savory, and spicy!
How has gardening and cooking from your garden impacted your family? What do your kids make of it? Are they involved?
I suppose the best way to answer this question is to check back in with my kids in ten years and ask them! No, but seriously... when something is just part of your living rhythm, I donʼt think children are aware of what an impact it has on them. My boys know the plants by name. I can ask them to go outside and pick me a bunch of this that or the other thing. They help me cook too. Where food comes from is not a mystery to them. They help plant it, they pick it, they wash it, they prepare it... and then they eat it. My kindergartner, Ronin, is so in love with chard that, admittedly, I have lied about other greens (like beet greens) and just told him it was a different type of chard to allay any suspicions he was having about eating them. Then thereʼs my teenage daughter Cheyenne (or Shiny as we call her). Sheʼll spend the time to make a salad dressing... but wonʼt spend the time to make the salad... she just takes her jar to the garden and grazes... picking various leaves and dipping them in her dressing. I love that they have that connection. As you know, through California Food Literacy we work with so many kids that have never tasted a pear... or who have never even heard of asparagus. Iʼm sure my kids arenʼt even aware of all the things they are learning... itʼs just how we live.
What inspired your poached egg/pesto/cheese crisp recipe?
What inspired that recipe? A few things. Number one I was hungry. Number two, there was very little in the fridge... but I still wanted something really good. Number three... I needed to do something with the dill before it all went to seed. That pesto was so good, I was looking for an excuse to put in on everything. Poaching is my favorite way to enjoy a fresh egg. I had gone off bread for a while, but still wanted something texturally crunchy to accommodate the soft egg... hence, the cheese crisp. My grandmother in Ireland often made me a poached egg on toast, as a kid... it was one of the few things she didn't absolutely destroy. That and Coddle. She killed any piece of meat, twice, and made sure to boil vegetables down to a state of limp anemia.
Does being Irish affect how you cook on a daily basis?
Thatʼs absolutely the funniest question I have ever been asked. Yes. Well, I mean I think being Irish affects me on a daily basis. At least in my family, there was a culture of not taking yourself too seriously. Youʼd better “take the piss” out of yourself before someone else does. (In other words... it is very difficult for me to answer this question with a straight face!) That being said, I think the greatest influence on the way I cook, or the fact that I can cook at all, is because of my mother... and less to do with being Irish. Perhaps, in response to the tragedy of her own motherʼs cooking... she went on to train at Cordon Bleu and Leithʼs in London. So, cooking has always been central in our family.
What is the dish you are the most proud of that has been a result of your garden's bounty?
Cooking at home, the days when I go, “Oh, Iʼm going to make such and such a recipe”are few and far between. Iʼm just sort of improvisational and shoot-from-the hip and use what looks good at the time or needs to be used. That being said, we had these japanese eggplants last year that I roasted and made the most amazing baba ganoush out of... with a drizzle of Harissa oil... it was fairly addictive, and Iʼm not even the biggest fan of eggplants. To serve, Iʼd decorate it with the little purple eggplant blossoms... a pretty reminder that it came from our garden.
Tell us a little about Sacramento Basket and how you created it. Did gardening play a role in its creation?
Aah, the story of Sacramento Basket. Without getting to personal, Iʼll say I went through a period of loss and financial hardship. It began with a basket of sandwiches and salads, often using our home-grown ingredients. I became known as “The Basket Lady” (another humorous poke at myself and circumstances). I would deliver lunch in a basket to various businesses and friendʼs offices. It occurred to me that I really enjoyed this! I wanted to expand the concept to cater to larger groups using my model of 100% local ingredients. So I ditched the “Lady” and became Sacramento Basket, a moniker that I felt encompassed our Farm to Fork identity. We live in an agricultural hub... and local sourcing is possible. I came up with the subtitle of Farm to Office Box Lunches, as it pretty much said it all. Iʼll cater board meetings, staff luncheons, lunch-and-learns... that sort of thing... itʼs all business to business.
What would you tell the person who wanted to get into gardening but felt overwhelmed about getting started?
I would tell them to start in Spring and prepare for summer. Squash, zucchini, eggplants, tomatoes... these things grow with relative ease, as anyone who has ever experienced “volunteer” plants will attest. If you are very timid, start in pots and graduate to a raised box. Get some starts at the market or nursery... thatʼll give you some instant gratification and inspiration while youʼre on your way to learning to plant from seed. In Sacramento, many organizations offer free home gardening classes. Or, do a volunteer day at a local community garden. Chances are if you live here... at least one of your friends gardens... ask them to help get you started.
Poached Egg with Dill Pesto and Cheese Crisp
For the pesto:
2 cups fresh dill, chopped
¼ cup walnuts
½ cup olive oiil
¼ cup grated Parmesan
3 cloves garlic
Pinch of salt
Blend in a high speed blender or food processor until smooth
For the cheese crisp: (for 4 people)
1 cup grated hard aged Irish cheddar or other hard cheese
Place grated cheese in 4 inch circles on parchment paper, place under broiler until melted and edges begin to get golden. Remove and let cool completely.
For the poached egg:
Drop eggs into a deep pot of gently boiling water for two minutes or until oval forms and yolk begins to lighten. Remove with a slotted spoon and dry.
Arrange pesto in a dollop (about 2 tbsp) on each plate. Place egg on top and finish with cheese crisp.